Since the end of the civil war in 2009, the Sri Lankan army has been occupying land that it refuses to return to its citizens. In 2016, the Sri Lankan Government co-signed the ‘Peacebuilding Priority Plan’ and committed to returning the land occupied by the army. The Human Rights Council states in its most recent report that the army still occupies 2 155 hectares of private land. French Member of the European (MEP) Parliament Younous Omarjee of the Group of the European United Left – Nordic Green Left raises concerns regarding the human rights commitments that are being rolled back in Sri Lanka
Over the last decade, the European Union has provided approximately EUR 760 million in aid to Sri Lanka as well as granting trade preferences under the Generalised Scheme of Preferences Plus (GSP+) to support the rehabilitation of the country. However, throughout the reconciliation process the Sri Lankan Government has failed to return all of the private land to its rightful owners and much of it still remains held by the Sri Lankan military.
In October 2019, French MEP Younous Omarjee filed a parliamentary question to the European Commission requesting details on what specific action the EEAS is taking “to ensure that the land is returned to its rightful owners?” and given that Sri Lanka is a beneficiary under the GSP+, “what checks are in place to ensure that the country has returned the land which the Government has already committed to returning?”
Finally, MEP Omarjee asked, “will the Union consider a thorough investigation into Sri Lanka’s failings following the GSP+ country-by-country evaluation in 2018 and the recommendations of the [Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women] CEDAW and the [International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights] CESCR?”
In January 2020, High Representative/ Vice President Borrell formally responded on behalf of the European Commission. Vice President Borrell stated that “the EU raises issues related to human rights with Sri Lankan authorities on a regular basis, not least in the annual meetings of the Working Group on Governance, Rule of Law and Human Rights, which last met on 31 August 2019” and added that “the EU Delegation in Colombo has an active dialogue with Sri Lankan authorities and is closely following the human rights situation”.
Mr Borrell highlighted that “human rights issues in Sri Lanka should also remain under the scrutiny of the international community, including the United Nations Human Rights Council resolutions 30/1 and 34/1, which cover issues related to human rights, governance, reconciliation and transitional justice, including land return” and that “the EU has called on the government of Sri Lanka to release private and state land under the control of the military and underlined that land which cannot be returned should be compensated”.
High Representative/ Vice President Borrell in his response noted that “a mission in the context of EU’s special incentive arrangement for Sustainable Development and Good Governance (GSP+) was carried out last August-September 2019” and that “a dialogue on Sri Lanka’s effective implementation of the 27 international conventions on human rights, labour rights, the protection of the environment and good governance took place and will be reported on in January 2020”.
High representative Borrell also underlined that “the issue of land release was discussed as it remains a key issue for reconciliation and long term peace building efforts” and that “whilst progress has been made in the return of land in the former conflict areas, the EU reiterated its call on the Government to finalise this process”. He also stated that “the EU will also address land disputes in Sri Lanka through the EU programme ‘Strengthening Transformation, Reconciliation and Inclusive Democratic Engagement (STRIDE)”.
In closing, Mr Borrell declared that “the recommendations of United Nations treaty bodies and special procedures are highly important, both for the Working Group on Governance, Rule of Law and Human Rights and for the GSP+ monitoring”.
High Representative/ Vice President Borrell is no doubt aware that Sri Lanka has previously had its GSP+ removed when it failed to comply with human rights recommendations in 2010. Similar sanctions could be used again as an incentive to force the Sri Lankan government to return the land to its rightful owners.
Photo Credit : https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flag_of_Sri_Lanka